Tue, Jul 23, 2013
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I spent a second night sleeping in the van at Mineral King, just off the road near the pack station. There are several fairly flat spots on the east side of the road between the two trailheads that can just fit one car. So far, I haven't been rousted by park rangers as I would have been in Yosemite Valley. I like the more laid back atmosphere found here. I had planned to get an early start, rising at 4a and making my way to Farewell Gap around sunrise, but periodic rain during the night dampened my enthusiasm for this. I don't mind hiking in the dark and I don't mind hiking in the rain, but I really didn't feel like starting off doing both.
Today's hike was an ambitious one, some 25 miles and more than 8,000ft of gain to three officially unnamed 12,000-foot peaks southeast of Farewell Gap and Mineral King. The primary goal was Suzanne Mountain, the furthest of the three and sporting more than 900ft of prominence. I picked up the name from a 1968 entry in the summit register which seemed as legit a source as any. Bullfrog Peak has a SummitPost page whose author got the name from a 1982 register entry by Andy Smatko who likely named it after the nearby lakes. The last peak, for which I found no name, lies roughly between the other two and constitutes a freebie of sorts, though there is some extra effort involved.
I got started shortly after 7a under overcast skies which would remain that way for the rest of the day. Luckily there would be little rainfall today as compared to the previous day. Straight ahead to the south can be seen the distinctive "V" of Farewell Gap right from the TH. This easily recognized pass can be seen from great distances both north and south. It would take just over two hours to cover the 6.25mi distance up Farewell Canyon to the pass. Along the way I crossed over Crystal and Franklin Creeks, both flush with water collected from the previous day's rain. At Farewell Gap I continued down the south side, now in the drainage of the Little Kern River. I looked for a use trail that might contour high on the eastern slopes of the canyon to reach Bullfrog Lakes, but in this I was unsuccessful. It would certainly be possible to simply contour cross-country, but I judged this to be more tedious than dropping 600ft to the trail junction for the Bullfrog Lakes Trail. During this descent I came across a father/son backpacking team who were heading up to the pass. They seemed to be in good spirits and no worse for the storms they had to ride out over the past few days.
I reached the trail junction at 9:40a, marked only by the remnants of a signpost. The trail to Bullfrog Lakes is no longer maintained but it is not hard to follow and made me happy with my decision to use the trail rather than a cross-country route. There are few trees this high in the south-facing drainage and it did not take long to leave the last of the trees below me as I made my way up towards Bullfrog Lakes. The lakes are nestled in a desolate, scree-covered cirque at almost 11,000ft with just a bit of greenery found around the edges. I left the trail after about half a mile, just before reaching the lower of the two lakes, heading up the west slopes of Bullfrog Peak. The weather was becoming less cooperative as I neared the saddle between its two summits and raindrops began to fall sporadically.
Bullfrog Peak has two summits a sixth of a mile apart, separated by a shallow saddle. The north summit has the spot elevation of 12,323ft and was the point marked on my GPS. But as I neared the saddle it became clear that the south summit was probably the higher of the two, and it was to this I headed. Visiting both wouldn't have been more than an extra fifteen minutes, but the weather had me concerned that I was going to be driven off sooner rather than later. Indeed, reaching the highpoint just after 11a I found myself enveloped by clouds, rain falling and was soon scrambling to get my rain jacket on. The summit had little to show for the effort - no view, no register, just a bunch of large granite boulders.
As I continued south over the summit, now heading to Peak 12,300ft along the connecting ridgeline I had to take it on faith that the ridge would work as I had poor visibility initially. The east side of the ridge seemed fraught with cliffs while the west side had an easier gradient with a mix of rock and sand. As I made my way down, the first peal of thunder could be heard not all that far away. There were two more thunderous booms with their associated flashes of lightning, then the weather show more or less stopped. The rain let up and stopped altogether as I passed through the saddle and started up to the second summit. I stripped off one layer and then another and before I reached the top of Peak 12,300ft I was down to my T-shirt once again. An hour had elapsed between the time I'd left Bullfrog Peak until I reached the summit of Peak 12,300ft. Though not enveloped by clouds this time, I was still near the base of the cloud layer and the views were quite limited. A small break in the clouds showed the puffy popcorn nature of the clouds building above me - I was constantly concerned that they might unleash more fury at any time. A rusty tin can held some unprotected papers. One wad was a 3-4 page collection of topo maps that had been left in the jar for unclear reasons. There was only a single page of names, from two parties, one in 2001 and another in 2011. There may have been other visitors who didn't sign in due to the lack of a writing utensil. I dug a pencil out of my pack and added my name at the bottom, then carefully replaced it with protective rocks over the can in an effort to keep the elements from reaching it.
I descended the slopes to the north, a collection of loose, sandy gullies that made for a fast descent. In the cirque between the two peaks is a small, unnamed tarn that I passed by as I turned east for Shotgun Pass. Located atop the Great Western Divide between the Kern and Little Kern River drainages, Shotgun Pass is a broad pass connecting Rattlesnake Creek to the Little Kern River. Though still shown on the USGS topo maps, the trail going over the pass is no longer maintained and not depicted on the NPS SEKI park map. There were the remains of an old sign at the pass and a newer one reminding visitors to leave their pets and guns on the south side of the pass, but no sign of a trail. Not that I was looking for it, as my route was across where the trail would go, following the ridgeline to the southeast for about a mile to the summit of Suzanne Mtn. A large, granite pinnacle lies along the ridge about a quarter mile from the pass blocking what would otherwise be easy hiking along the ridge. The pinnacle is somewhat formidable, with no easy way to the summit that I could find. The north side appears to be at least class 4, the south side perhaps easier, but I did not give it a serious try as I was intent on getting past it, not up it on this outing. The easiest route around the pinnacle is on the sandy southwest side, but as that seemed somewhat tedious I chose to go around the unseen northeast side which ended up taking longer. That side has some cliffs that I got temporarily lost in, having to backtrack and climb lower before finding a way around. Once south of the pinnacle the going was straightforward, following the southwest side of the crest over sandy granite terrain past several false summits until finally reaching the highpoint around 2p.
A small can that once held electrical tape contained a collection of small, loose sheets that made up the register. The inside cover, penned in 1968, had the name "Suzanne Mtn" given to the peak without explanation. The oldest page was from a Sierra Club party in 1942, followed by A.J. Reyman's entry in 1951. An Oakland Boy Scout troop had visited in 1955. Gordon and Barbara had visited in 1977, Smatko and pals in 1982. In all there were just 11 pages with names over the past 70 years, with the most recent entry in 2002. I didn't get much in the way of views due to the continuing cloud cover, but the old register entries more than made up for it.
I returned back along the long NW Ridge, intending to take the sandy route back around the SW side of the pinnacle. One can drop down the north side into the Rattlesnake Creek drainage at a number of points, but extra gain is required to climb back out of it. As I approached the pinnacle, the sand traverse once again took on an ugly sheen and I decided at the last minute to drop back down the north side. I took advantage of a wide, sandy chute to descend a few hundred feet before cutting left and through the slabby granite slopes on the east side of the pinnacle. This led to easy, open cross-country terrain east of Shotgun Pass which I followed for several miles downhill, dropping more than 1,000ft to Rattlesnake Creek. I was very alert for signs of the old trail to Shotgun Pass which the GPS showed me crossing, but I saw no signs of a trail, no ducks, nothing.
It was 3:30p before I had found the trail on the north side of Rattlesnake Creek. The last uphill of the day was a nearly 2mi, 1,500-foot climb up to Franklin Pass to get me back over the Great Western Divide and into the Kaweah River drainage, taking me most of an hour. Clouds were moving over the divide from the west, obscuring Florence Peak and most of the surrounding summits. By the time I had negotiated the long, sandy stretch to the pass I was once again in the clouds and given a minimum of viewing pleasure. The pass itself had only a stump of a signpost to mark the top. When I was up here the previous year there were a dozen folks near the summit or making their way up to it or on the way down, giving the impression that it was quite popular for both backpackers and day hiking enthusiasts. Today there was just me, not a soul in sight and no tents down at Franklin Lakes. Those two I had seen earlier in the morning were the only other souls I would see in the backcountry today. As I descended the west side of the pass I eventually passed back under the cloud layer, brightening the otherwise stark scene of rock and sand. Flowers were in abundance in this drainage in a range of colors at various locations along the trail.
The hike back from Franklin Pass is a long one, more than 8 miles, but at least it was all downhill and there was much scenery to take in and enjoy. In addition to the flowers and streams, there were occasional marmots and a number of friendly park deer that don't seem to be familiar with human hunting practices. Even back at the pack station there were half a dozen deer inside the corral sharing the hay with the horses and mules. It was close to 7p by the time I got back to the TH in Mineral King, making for an outing of almost 12hrs. This was much better than the previous day when I had finished too early. With a shower, dinner and another movie, I had plenty to keep me occupied until well after sunset. My sore and tired body would sleep better, too, always a good thing...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Bullfrog Peak
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